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Saving the solar way

AV officials tackle dust, hail, how to store sunshine

Merdies Hayes | 8/23/2013, midnight

Expanding civilization within the desert has always been a precarious proposition. So it is with the new solar power projects taking place in the Antelope Valley. The issue this time is determining how to deal with the natural environment which can provide numerous obstacles to progress.

There has been considerable uproar lately regarding the constant dust storms that besiege the northern-most portion of the Mojave Desert where a number of high-tech green energy projects are being built. Dust and solar plates do not mix because build-up on the glass panels will diminish energy output. This becomes a problem because solar panels are now mandatory in Lancaster in newly constructed homes.

Last week, an agreement was reached between solar power developers here and in Kern County regarding sand storms (or “haboobs”) and their affect on delicate machinery.

The agreement includes efforts by developers to put in preventative measures that will keep solar panels operating efficiently even in dust storms and inclement weather. Last spring, Los Angeles County halted work on the nearly-complete Antelope Valley Solar Ranch One project because of violent dust storms and, according to some residents, the possible spread of Valley Fever, an malady often caused by blowing microscopic fragments of rodent and bird feces. This dust can be kicked up during the building of solar facilities or any construction.

During a recent meeting of the Rosamond Municipal Advisory Council, representatives from the Kern County planning department and from the Kern County Board of Supervisors admitted to residents that they have experienced the same difficulties with their solar projects and told attendees that, essentially, they’d have to be resigned to the elements.

“The sites where solar is being built are all different, the dust issues are different and the solutions are different,” said Kern County Supervisor Zack Scrivner. “But the dust caused by the severe wind event we had over the Memorial Day weekend was not because of the solar. This is the desert. When you have 70-mph winds, you are going to have dust.”

And not just dust. Earlier this week, a violent hail storm swept through Lancaster along Highway 14. With golf-ball-sized hail pelting solar installations, there is the possibility of regular damage to these multimillion-dollar installations which local officials tout as the energy source of the future.

The health concern about Valley Fever was further explained by recent figures released by the Centers for Disease Control which show an increased incidence of the potentially lethal, desert-specific, fungal respiratory disease in the Central Valley, just north of the Antelope Valley. Despite these concerns, it would appear solar power in the Antelope Valley will play a vital role in region’s economic future.

Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris set three years ago a “net zero” power goal for his city: that is, to harness energy from the sun and become 100 percent power-independent. So far Lancaster is halfway there, producing the most solar power per resident in the state. All future home construction in Lancaster will include solar panels, as will the new businesses being built locally (i.e., Kaiser Permanente’s expansion in Lancaster, as well as the new City of Hope facility).